What is the secret behind the success of the Trump circus?

Donald Trump, photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump isn’t a serious politician. He’s an arrogant, obscene clown without an ounce of substance. Or so the conventional wisdom goes. But after a successful Super Tuesday, Trump is looking less like Bozo and more like one of the grotesque characters from the 80’s cult classic Killer Klowns from Outer Space. As it turns out, Trump is a serious politician. And that is frightening. But how is it possible? What is the secret behind the success of the Trump circus?

Much of Trump’s success can be summed up in one word: entertainment. The Republican debates have enjoyed sky-high ratings and turnout for the GOP primary contests has shattered previous records. It is hard, bordering on impossible, to ascribe these outcomes to anyone but Donald Trump. Whatever else he may be, Trump is unquestionably entertaining.

With this in mind, it is informative to look at the work of French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord. Debord theorized in his 1967 book Society of the Spectacle that people passively accept images and messages delivered by media. As a result, society becomes detached from reality and more interested in being entertained than engaging with facts. This is the secret to Trump’s success. He is winning not despite his boorish behavior but because of it.

A young John Kennedy faces Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate. (1960)

It is tempting to say that Trump has triggered the “society of the spectacle” and he heralds the end of politics. But the truth is that our image-mediated political reality predates even Debord’s work. President Kennedy’s successful campaign in 1960 is often attributed to the effect of the first televised debate in United States history. According to reports at the time, voters who listened to the debate on the radio were convinced that Richard Nixon had won. Not so for people who watched the debate on television and were able to see the young, handsome Senator from Massachusetts. Kennedy rode the result of that first debate all the way to the White House.

Since 1960, the influence of media on politics has expanded exponentially. And politicians have done well to take advantage of that relationship. One of the better examples so far can be found in President Ronald Reagan. While not really a star, the former film and television actor was certainly comfortable in front of the camera. And he used his past career to his political advantage, even naming his autobiography Where’s the Rest of Me after a line from his 1942 film King’s Row.

But the United States has never seen a politician quite like Donald Trump. As a reality television star and real estate mogul, he has a brand that’s recognized world-wide. And he’s also a master at manipulating the media into giving him more than his fair share of coverage. On top of that, Trump espouses authoritarian policies that are unparalleled in the history of the country.

Silvio Berlusconi, former Prime Minister of Italy, via Wikimedia Commons

Trump’s dangerous cocktail of influence over the media and authoritarianism brings to mind Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi is known for being a demagogue, making crude comments about minorities and women, and having authoritarian leanings. And he’s a billionaire who owns the largest broadcasting company in Italy. Sound familiar? As multiple writers familiar with Italian politics have pointed out, Trump is cut from the same cloth as Berlusconi. Pair this with Trump’s ruthless version of capitalism and he’s basically Debord’s nightmare candidate.

Trump is also a nightmare for his Republican opponents who until recently have attempted to use wonky policy arguments against him. Predictably, that has not convinced Trump’s entranced supporters to leave his tent. The GOP debate in Houston on February 25thsaw a change in strategy, with Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio essentially dumping their opposition research folders on Trump.

And following the debate, in what can only be described as the most last-ditch of last-ditch efforts, Rubio decided to get into the insult game and try to out-Trump the Donald. But making jokes about another candidate’s genitalia is not a good look for someone who’s previously branded himself as a presidential, establishment choice. And the early returns for Rubio are not positive.

So, if policy debates and Rubio’s attempt at carnival barking don’t work to shake Trump, what will? Some are claiming that Trump has significant weaknesses coming out of Super Tuesday. And the contest may yet end up in a brokered convention. One can only hope. But if Debord’s “society of the spectacle” and Italy’s experience with Silvio Berlusconi are anything to go by, we have real reason to be concerned. The Trump circus is effective. And the “Greatest Show on Earth” could go on for a long four years.

Do you think Donald Trump will be able to win the Republican nomination and, ultimately, the Presidency? Let me know in the comments.

This post originally appeared on The Polis Report- http://polisreport.com/2016/03/03/secret-behind-success-trump-circus/.

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Originally published at polisreport.com on March 3, 2016.

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